Many things have changed over the past fifty years when it comes to musicians presenting their craft to an audience. One of the biggest has been the sheer number of acts competing for listeners. And with digital technology eroding listeners’ attention spans, bands have to compete for a piece of their tattered memory banks as well. That struggle to create an impression on the collective memory has fueled countless deluxe editions and greatest-hits packages. Some acts — including the Eagles, the Who, and now U2 — have even taken multiple cracks at the best-of piñata.
U2 found great success with 1998’s The Best of 1980-1990 collection, which steered much attention away from the electronica-tinged and slightly miscalculated Pop, released the year previous. Three years later, the group had already released the more widely accepted All That You Can’t Leave Behind, so when the time had come to revisit those lost years in the ’90s with The Best of 1990-2000, the general consensus wasn’t as warm. Five years later, Bono, Edge, Mullen Jr., and Clayton release 18 Singles to coincide with the release of their autobiography, U2 by U2.
Without being tethered to a decade, 18 Singles (most of which are culled from 1987’s The Joshua Tree) becomes more of a true best-of album, considering factors such as mass appeal. Some albums (Pop and October) and less acceptable singles songs (“Discotheque” and “Fire”) are glossed as if they never happened. The problem with the album is that it’s simply a compilation of U2’s top iTunes downloads. No amount of pretty packaging can hide this, and not even well-established songs such as “With or Without You” or “Beautiful Day” can save it. 18 Singles was designed with your average impulse-buyer in mind, not a true fan of the band’s music.
The new tracks here are interesting (the group’s collaboration with Green Day on a cover of the Skid’s “The Saints Are Coming” or the U2-doo-woppy “Window in the Skies”), but they don’t enhance the collection. And the song arrangements is awkward enough without the new tracks simply thrown onto the end. Even the worst-arranged U2 collection still includes songs that are worth hearing more than twice, but you’re probably still better just picking up a copy of The Joshua Tree.